Think of the last time you had to interact with a police officer. Chances are, it was a traffic stop. Most Americans drive, and in a country where it’s nearly impossible not to violate some criminal law while behind the wheel, to drive is literally to be a criminal. Being a criminal means the cops can stop and arrest you at any time, even to investigate a crime that has nothing to do with any traffic violation.
That’s not a big deal for most people, since they know the rare traffic ticket is probably the worst that can happen. But when getting pulled over can mean violence or even death, the prospect of a traffic stop can be a constant menace.
As anyone who isn’t willfully ignorant knows, that’s the reality facing many black (and brown) Americans today. Poverty dynamics, implicit bias, and a judiciary that has interpreted the Fourth Amendment to place few limits on police discretion all combine to create an environment in which police-related violence has become unacceptably commonplace.
Decriminalize Traffic Offenses
That needs to end. Improvements like body cameras and independent police auditors are steps in the right direction, but none of those reforms gets at the source of the problem, which is that our criminal traffic laws give police officers the discretion to detain a broad swath of the country’s population at will in the unceasing effort to nab more criminals.
The time has long since come to attack this systemic defect at its root. That means abolishing our criminal traffic laws and replacing them with an administrative enforcement system.
We’ve come to take it for granted, but it’s actually bizarre that we use police officers and criminal courts to enforce basic traffic regulations. In every other similar context — fire codes, building standards, occupational rules, and a host of others — we use administrative systems to enforce society’s health and safety standards, not criminal laws and criminal law enforcement. Yet we’re no less safe as a result.
The difference is important. Unlike police officers, administrative personnel don’t investigate crimes and aren’t empowered to arrest or detain. So, for example, when a contractor doesn’t construct a building with access to a fire escape, or a restaurant owner doesn’t require her employees to wash their hands, they aren’t arrested or put in jail by a police officer. A code enforcement official just issues them a citation or an order to correct the violation.
There’s no reason it should be any different when dealing with turn signals and speed limits rather than building construction and sanitation. Except for serious offenses like drunk or reckless driving (which should remain criminal laws), traffic violations don’t pose an imminent danger to safety.
The guy who doesn’t use his signal before changing lanes may be annoying, even incautious. But no one’s going to be hurt if he’s merely fined rather than detained by a police officer the moment he commits his transgression. Just as with any other regulatory scheme, we can rely on administrative enforcement rather than the criminal justice system to deter everyday bad driving and keep us safe.
Traffic Stops Are Not about Deterrence
One reason we’ve gotten so accustomed to our criminal regime is that a traffic stop lets a police officer cite the actual driver who commits a violation, whereas in an administrative system enforcement officials would likely just send the car’s registered owner a fine by mail. We already enforce parking laws this way, and it makes sense. The theory is that a car’s owner is responsible for making sure his car is used properly, even if he permits other people to use it. That theory applies equally in the context of minor traffic violations.
But even if we wanted to preserve the practice of on-the-spot vehicle stops, enforcement officers in an administrative system would have no criminal investigative authority, so the stop would consist of nothing more than citing and releasing the offending driver. This type of strictly non-criminal, citation-only system is very different from the world of traffic cops and criminal courts we’ve always known, and the shift from one to the other could be jarring for some.
But we can’t continue to abide the status quo. Police officers should fight crime, not supervise driving. Ending the practice of using armed police officers to stop drivers based on minor traffic violations would do nothing to impair criminal law enforcement. Quite the opposite—it would free our officers to focus on protecting us from real crime, not to mention lighten the burden on our overworked courts. At the same time, that single reform would do more than any other to reduce unnecessary police-related violence.
Let’s stop accepting that people suffering or dying because of minor traffic violations is inevitable. It isn’t. People only suffer or die because we have elected to use criminal laws to regulate an innocuous everyday activity. Abolishing those laws and replacing them with a simple administrative system is the first necessary step to fixing the problem.
We owe it to our fellow citizens, especially our citizens of color, to do that (rather than the opposite) before yet another person is needlessly jailed, assaulted, or killed simply because she had the audacity to get behind the wheel of a car.